Viewpoint -- Practice Common Courtesy

Dec. 21, 2004
Ditch the self-important attitude and treat people with respect.

A few years ago, I placed a routine call to the headquarters of a major U.S.-based corporation. I needed a mug shot of the company's CEO for a story I was working on. I asked for his office, figuring his secretary would be able to accommodate my request. His secretary, however, didn't answer the phone. He did. And he graciously, cheerfully arranged to get me what I needed. A few weeks ago, I phoned an attorney -- not a particularly distinguished one, I might add. He was too busy to return my call. I left a detailed voice-mail message with his assistant, as his recording instructed me to do. She called me back and left me a message, and I reached her directly on my next try. "What do you want?" she said. "I'm glad we finally made a human-to-human connection," I laughed. "What do you want?" she said again, more impatiently than before. I may not be the most socially savvy guy around, but even I could see that a pleasant -- or even civil -- exchange was not in the cards. I promptly began to repeat the message I'd already left her. "Let me stop you there," she said after I'd spoken only a sentence or two. She directed me to call an attorney associate of her boss. I wondered why had she invited me to repeat my message in the first place, but I didn't ask her that. I just thanked her and said goodbye. I don't know if she heard me before she abruptly hung up. I called the other lawyer and left yet another message. Days passed before he returned my call, only to tell me to call his secretary. Does the term "self-important" come to mind? There's a lot of that going around. Have you noticed? It's a condition more prevalent than the common cold. It is called common rudeness. And in 21st century American business, it pretty much has displaced its opposite, common courtesy. It is particularly evident in the mid- and lower-levels of the executive suite. The folks at the top, like the CEO who answered his own phone, seem to be less afflicted with the rudeness disease. But, sadly, even among the leaders of business I notice less and less graciousness than in the past. It is a sad sign of the times. More and more, we have lost our inclination to be polite -- let alone gracious or kind. Human interaction, it seems, tends to annoy rather than warm us. Unconvinced? Try this: Next time you are on an office-building elevator, nod "hello" to your fellow passengers. Chances are the eyes around you will drive holes into the floor. Try smiling at passersby on a busy downtown street and odds are good that you will be treated to the spectacle of heads doing the 180-twist. OK, yes, here and there people will indeed return the nod or the smile. And occasionally a business contact -- sometimes even a lawyer -- behaves as if his or her individual work is not, after all, the one and only matter of importance in the universe. But it does not happen often enough. Muse about it and most folks will plead that we're all just too busy or preoccupied to be polite. I don't buy it. We're all busy, of course, and much of what we do isn't particularly fun. A lot of it is tedious and we are in a hurry to get it done. But let's face it, most of us -- especially those of us fortunate enough to work in clean, temperature-controlled office environments -- have it pretty darn good. So can we please just give each other a break? We all take our work seriously. But the truth is, very few of us are involved in curing cancer. So let's at least make one small contribution to society by ridding our daily business interactions of incivility. After all, isn't rudeness its own form of cancer? Richard Osborne is IW's editor-at-large. He is based in Cleveland.

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